Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Four Elements of Deep Silence: Earth

Working on The Cloud of Unknowing has given rise to many thoughts that don't have direct bearing on the text itself. One of these is that metaphors that gesture towards the deep silence, where the Holy Spirit does the work of transfiguration, at various times employ the imagery of the four elements which ancient and medieval people thought were the building-blocks of all that exists.

Way back in the middle of the 20th century people got very excited about Tillich's phrase 'ground of being'. He was, of course, drawing on German philosophy; but the phrase has many ancient and medieval antecedents. Julian of Norwich speaks of the 'ground of beseking' (often mistranslated as 'beseeching'). God as 'ground' is also an image beloved of Eckhart, and St Paul as well.

There is a certain rationale behind the use of such an earthy image to gesture towards what is utterly imageless. One thinks of the streets of solid gold in Rev. 21, which are also somehow translucent. Paradoxes such as these stop the mind momentarily, and encourage liminality. But there is also a theological sensibility that attaches to them, and it's one that the Cloud-author stresses in his chapters (50s) that deal with the literal-minded, who contort themselves into all sorts of odd behaviour in their desire to imitate the metaphorical words 'up' and 'in'. It's the notion that in God there is no direction, no geometry; the only security is to give up security, to free-fall in the love of God, as it were. The foundation is laid by giving up foundations—one thinks of the several biblical references to the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

Once again the metaphor reflects reality: in space-time too there is no 'up' or 'down'. One tantalizing aspect of the Cloud-author's world-view is that it is Copernican (Walsh) a hundred years before Copernicus himself. This knowledge makes the Cloud-author's remarks about direction take on a double, if not a triple aspect. Anyone who has practiced one-pointed meditation (the beginning first step of what the Cloud-author is talking about) will understand what he means about any direction being the same as any other, that direction in this context becomes meaningless.

The Cloud-author pushes even an extreme apophaticist like me. As I read him over and over (as he advises), creating a parallel text of different versions, the process opens up meanings, not only those that insist that nothing means nothing (this morning I woke up with a catchphrase in my mind: 'if there's excessus, there's no mentis') but also the biblical allusions to death and resurrection that occur towards the end of the Cloud chapters numbered in the fifies and the early sixties.

It is in deep silence that we shall all be changed; in fact, it almost seems as if the Cloud-author is saying of what he self-deprecatingly calls an 'exercise' that it is, in fact, a matter of life and death. The choice to behold that the people in the desert refused is always available to us in the deeps. We make that choice for life or death by intention: are we willing to cast our intention in to the abyss of love along with our thoughts, ideas and all our preconceptions; are we willing to be attentively receptive to the life that emerges in response? or will we intend to remain in the idolatry of the construct we have created, the pseudo-security of what we think we know? a construct whose maintenance demands that we squander all our energy, but which will shatter at the slightest provocation? Holden Caulfield would call this construct our 'phoniness' but the irony is that not only it is all we have to offer, it is the gift that God wants us to offer, so that stripped of it, we become available to the transfigurative process that in turn will inform the constructs we need to create to function in the presenting world.

It can't be emphasized often enough that regaining the balance that is normative for human beings—beholding, to use the biblical term—is not a matter of choosing either experience or deep silence; it's rather a matter of re-establishing the circulation between the two, between the true origin of our shared nature with God, and our engagement with time—for which we need constructs. What is different when we have recovered that balance is that these constructs become informed by the silence; they're no longer trying to feed off their own vacuity but are given life from the primordial love that is beholding. The liminal area between the cloud of forgetting and the cloud of unknowing becomes the arena of communication, of receptivity and creativity.

Earth images: there have been catastrophic earthquakes recently as tectonic plates slip past one another and seek to release tension. By analogy there is tension and stress within our selves created by the slippage between the construct and the reality, the fault-lines between our self-consciousness and deep silence. Unlike the slippage of the tectonic plates, which is natural, our slippage is unnatural; it needs to be justified so that we can regain our nature, function optimally within our selves and with each other, so that the life we share with God emerges into the everyday.

The earth will keep moving, and so will we. The tensions and stresses caused by the tectonic plates will not be relieved; they will only be displaced to build again until the next cataclysm. By contrast, as the Cloud-author notes, the movement and justification that humans undergo through healing transfiguration in deep silence is a kind of rest, where tension and stress will fade away; where sorrow and pain will be no more; and where every eye will be wiped of every tear.


Blogger Michael said...

Your thoughts and images are so helpful. Thank you for writing.

3:52 pm, March 29, 2011  

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